Don’t assume: Our car mechanic

The tale of the fifty cents

So this week, I thought I’d start a 3-part series on the tales that people tell. And how you shouldn’t jump to conclusions because the conclusion you jump to may not be the conclusion other people jump to. It’s also an observation on what rosy-coloured glasses we use in life, during really inappropriate moments.

Like the story told by our car mechanic when we still lived in Melbourne. He was a young, hard-working man who had an immense amount of respect for his father. So much so that he told us the following anecdote while we were waiting for our bill to be totalled:

When I was young, about ten years old, my father told me he’d pay me fifty cents if I mowed the yard. Wow, fifty cents! So I dragged the lawnmower out of the garage and I mowed the front yard and then I ran up to my father asking for my money. “But you haven’t mowed the back,” he told me. So I took the mower to the back yard and, after a couple of hours, finished the back yard. I ran to my father again, asking for my fifty cents. “Not until you clean the mower and put it back in the garage,” he said. So I cleaned the mower, put it back in the garage and went to the front verandah where my father was sitting, reading the paper. After I told him that I had finished, he looked at me, folded his newspaper and walked into the house. I never got my fifty cents.

We both stared at our mechanic. “So what’s the moral of the story?” J asked.

“It’s strange,” our young friend replied. “I asked my father that recently and he said he couldn’t remember what he wanted to teach me, but it was probably along the lines of not always getting what you want.”

We remained quiet — both of us horrified but conversing only with speaking glances — until we were in our car, driving away.

“Well,” J said to me, “I think the moral of the story is that you can be missing a few marbles and still have kids.”

“Really?” I replied. “To me, the moral of the story is that parents can be utter c*nts.”

Novel Spaces and Hari Raya Haji

It’s retail therapy time for the Augustin clan!

I’m over at Novel Spaces today, talking about why, if you love an author, you should buy direct from her/his publisher, rather than going through, say, Amazon. There’s some quick and dirty maths I set out, but I think you all can cope! :)

And today is a public holiday in Malaysia and Singapore. It’s Hari Raya Haji, which marks the end of the two-month pilgrimage period to Mecca. I found a site that has a great explanation of the festival, so go here and have a read.

Selamat Hari Raya Haji and have a good weekend everyone. I’ll catch you on Monday.

A thought on the move to Malay in Malaysian schools

Shooting yourself in the foot, Malaysian style

We’re not supposed to talk about it. The different races. We’re all supposed to pretend that everyone gets on really well with everyone else, even though an incredibly unfair set of discrimination practices are in place. We’re all supposed to pretend it doesn’t exist, even though Malaysia must be the only country in the world that actively discriminates against its own citizens.

The Malays make up the majority of the population in Malaysia, at around 60%. Then you have the Chinese, at around 25%, the Indians at around, say, 9%, and there are various communities of Other, including us Portuguese Eurasians.

Nobody will say it out loud, but the major tension is between the Malays and the Chinese. The Chinese are the engine of Malaysia’s economy, but the Malays rule the country. In order to keep it that way, various laws are put in place that favour the Malays above and beyond any other ethnic group in the country. Now, you may argue about the nefarious nature of those laws and, while I agree with you, I can also understand why the Malays instituted them. It becomes completely obvious around festival time. At Hari Raya, you may find a few shops closed for two or three days but, at Chinese New Year, it’s like the entire country shuts down for a week. It’s this huge economic power that the Malays are fighting against when they first instituted the New Economic Policy and its mutated children.

(Personally, I believe that the Malays are doing themselves a disservice by retaining the NEP. (I’m actually quite sympathetic to their plight, but the NEP goes way too far.) All it does is set up a culture of dependency, and it makes others doubt a person’s competence. “Did you get to that position because you’re smart, or because of the NEP?” The problem is, I’ve met many very smart, very competent young Malay professionals, but I’ve slurred them upon first meeting because that’s the first question in my mind. It doesn’t do the credibility of Malays any good to have such a two-edged sword hanging over them. And the Malays are lucky with the Malaysian Chinese, who must be one of the most laid-back bunch of Chinese I’ve ever met. Bring Hong Kong Chinese here and the average Malaysian, regardless of ethnicity, wouldn’t last two seconds. Everything will be in Mandarin within a snap of the fingers.)

So, now that you have a fifty-words-or-less rendition of the last six decades of Malaysia’s history, let’s move on.

Recently, the government decided that the instruction of Science and Maths was to move back to Malay from English. This has been greeted with dismay from every Malaysian, except the Chinese language die-hards and the rural Malay population. What’s a parent to do?

Point One: I pose one question: who owns the private schools and colleges in Malaysia? Overwhelmingly, they are Chinese. The Malays have their own system worked out in the regular state schools and universities. So, as with the owners, the children attending private institutions are also overwhelmingly Chinese.

Point Two: At the moment, any international school (a subset of private schools) in Malaysia can accept Malaysian children, up to 40% of its total enrollment.

Point Three: Private schools are loathe to switch the teaching of Science and Maths to Malay and many are preparing formal exemption proposals to the Malaysian Ministry of Education even as I type.

The Star covers the topic of education in Malay/English here. It also mentions a few schools by name, so let’s go on a tour.

Who’s behind Sri KDU? The CEO is Ms Teh Geok Lian. Others involved are Mrs AK Chan, Mr Muhammad Azhar Bin Abdullah, Mr Ong Keng Siew, Dato’ Teo Chiang Quan, Dr Chia Chee Fen and Cik Rohana Tan Sri Mahmood.

What about Garden International School? Managing Director is Dato’ Loy Teik Ngan. Others are Mrs Abby Loy, Dr Khoo Soo Peng, Mr BK Gan and Mrs YY Chew.

Hmmmmm. Starting to sense a pattern here? Let’s try another school mentioned in the newspaper article.

How about Sri KL? Executive Chairman is YB Tan Sri Dato’ Ir. Orthman Merican. And others include En. Hanif Merican, En. Rais A Manas … oh and then it starts to slide again … Ms Shirley Hai, Mr Chew Teck Ann, Dr Tan Khun, Mr Ngoo Kee Min, and so on.

The Malaysian government has managed to shoot a number of toes off with this reversal of policy in language. Quoting liberally from The Star article cited above, let’s go through them. First, the effect on private and international schools:

Several private and international schools … said that they had been inundated with calls from Malaysian parents in the weeks after the decision [to switch the language of instruction from English to Malay] was made.

Secondly, the effect on the Malaysian curriculum:

… [T]he government’s decision to reverse the PPSMI policy “has forced Sri KL to adopt the Cambridge International Primary Programme … [B]y 2014, Sri KL Primary School will no longer offer the [federal curriculum standard,] KBSR with the exception of Bahasa Malaysia for the UPSR examination [equivalent to the old UK 11-plus exam — ksa].

And, thirdly, the effect on Malaysia itself:

… [T]he trend to opt for international schools is also apparent around Asia as Korea and China are starting to recognise the global importance of English. “The demand for an English-medium education worldwide has never been greater.”

So, the upshot is that rural Malays — who were held up as the reason for the reversion to Malay — will continue to be discriminated against in the future global marketplace. Those with money, or the ability to save up enough for their children’s education, regardless of race, will continue to have their children educated in English and overseas. And the Chinese, who own the private and international schools will, due to an incredibly increased demand, clean up, money-wise. If it didn’t disadvantage so many children — of all races — undeserving of such a future fate, I’d be in stitches right now.

Malaysian food: not for me!

In which Kaz goes cruising for a bruising

I was talking to my friend Parvathy recently. I was in a particularly good mood as I had tried on a pair of trousers I’d bought a couple of years ago and the darned thing — that had fitted quite well — slipped straight off my hips. I’ve had an aim of losing a few kilograms over the past few years but absolutely refuse to adhere to any particular diet. Instead, I’ve been trying to eat breakfast, cut my meal consumption to two a day and get some exercise. For one reason or another, without my really noticing it, I’ve shed the fat.

So anyway, there I was with Parvathy, in a good mood.

“Living in Malaysia has been great,” I enthused. “I’ve lost a few pounds.”
“How did you do it?” she asked, greatly interested.
“I don’t eat the food.”

It was a statement as a joke, meant to elicit a laugh, but is truer than you can imagine.

Food in Malaysia. Everyone raves about it. As did I. Not any more. If the United States has an obesity epidemic (as Alexander Cockburn so drily observes), then its Asian equivalent is Malaysia. By the universe, I’ve seen some porkers around. And, like Cockburn, from all age groups. Young men and women sporting enough spare tyres to service a car is not a healthy look. I try to imagine them having sex (hey, I’m an erotic romance writer, okay?) and it just doesn’t quite work. Let’s break it down.

Satay. Mmmm, those delicious charcoal-grilled skewers of meat. Not too many lean pieces are used. And they’ve been marinated in a sugar mix. And basted constantly with oil. Before being served with a sauce thick with peanuts. And palm oil. And sugar.

Nasi lemak. Well, for a start, “lemak” means “fat” in Malay. The rice has been cooked in coconut milk. The ikan bilis (dried anchovies) have been fried in palm oil. The sambal contains sugar. The really nice, smooth-tasting sambals contain condensed milk, I kid you not.

Roti canai. Oh, that flaky, crunchy, soft-as-butter layered flat bread! Made with evaporated or condensed milk. Also, heaps of ghee.

Laksa lemak. Coconut milk. Palm oil.

Run of the mill curry. Palm oil. Coconut milk.

Chicken rice (and I’m sobbing as I type this because this is my favourite dish). Chicken fat in the rice, the more the better.

So, what’s wrong with palm oil? Palm oil, my stalwart Asian readers, contains between 49% (palm oil) and 81% (palm kernel oil) saturated fat. Did you get that? Up to EIGHTY-ONE PERCENT saturated fat!!! Do you know what saturated fat does to you? It clogs your arteries. It increases your (bad) cholesterol level. One of the reasons humans eat fat is to help produce energy to maintain our body temperature but in an equatorial country, for crying out loud, that need is at a minimum, so it gets socked away in our bodies instead. Malaysians gleefully go through palm oil like it’s water and say things like, the curry is no good if it doesn’t have a layer of oil floating on top. Doh!

And as for coconut milk. Now, maybe coconut milk isn’t as bad as I was thinking. However, it still has a fat content of around 17%. I mean, we go nutso over milk, having “skim”, “low-fat”, and “zero-fat” versions, all because the full-cream product contains — are you ready? — 4% of fat. But we’ll wave coconut milk through as being “healthy” with a fat content of SEVENTEEN PERCENT?

The upshot of all this is that a normal Malaysian meal is a heart attack just waiting to happen. Now, I’m trying not to get all paranoid over this. I had a big bowl of laksa last night for dinner, for example. But I probably won’t have another one for another 3-4 weeks. The same goes for nasi lemak. And I don’t think we’ve had any roti canai for more than a month. And I’m not secretly looking at all those dishes, thinking to myself how I’d like to devour some curry and roti for breakfast every day. There are heaps of other dishes we cook at home that are healthy, and that the kids love, but that don’t pack the same kind of lethal punch as you get in an average Malaysian food court.

Part of the problem is that cooked food is so cheap here. And professional women tend not to cook. (One of my cousins, at the age of 35+, cooked her very first curry and called us, Malaysia to Australia, to tell us the good news. She didn’t really learn how to cook anything else, but would commandeer the kitchen when guests were due, so she could “show off” her “cooking prowess” with her infamous one curry.) It’s just a lot easier to grab some grub from the local stalls and head home rather than swelter away in a hot kitchen with no air-conditioning.

And, if you have children, the chaotic two-sessions-a-day school schedule kicks in. You might have one child going to morning school ( start at 7:00am-ish, finish around 2pm) and another going to afternoon school (start at 1:00pm-ish, finish around 7pm). They may then shoot off to tuition a few times a week before heading home. Trying to organise a mealtime together gets difficult, especially when you add in two working adults. Servants also cook, and that’s an option, but the kind of food they cook is, again, not the healthiest, relying mostly on frying. We cook at home about five nights a week and go through three litres of oil in 4-5 months of cooking. That’s seen as being very unusual in a country where families buy large 5-litre bottles of palm oil, often filling the shopping trolley with them, close to festival time.

One of the final factors is that Malaysia is the world’s top producer of palm oil. So what’s the most common form of fat you get here? Yep, palm oil. The one that also happens to be the unhealthiest in the world. We buy pure canola oil, but that’s easily three times the price of palm oil and, at the rate that Malaysians go through it, the average family simply can’t afford it. And don’t even get us started on olive oil, which goes for an average of RM30 per 700ml bottle for the good stuff.

And, lastly, you have the average Malaysian’s utter love affair with fat. If the Scots hadn’t come up with deep-fried, battered Mars bars, the Malaysians would’ve. Malaysians can take anything and turn it into a feast of fat. Order prawns and it will come fried in pure butter with curry leaves and butter-fried breadcrumbs. The problem is, it’s absolutely delicious (Butter Prawns, KL style). I ordered Cantonese-style flat rice noodles at a Malay restaurant a couple of weekends ago, and it came as a full-on fried kway teow (noodles fried with soya sauce in oil) and surrounded by an Chinese-style sauce thickened with cornflour and egg, to which meat and vegetables had been added. Hey guys, one or the other, but not both on the same plate! Deep-fried sushi; puff pastry enclosing everything, from custard to tuna curry; tea and coffee, loaded with condensed milk AND sugar; fruit danish pastries topped with slices of pound cake; doughnuts glazed with chocolate icing, then decorated with chocolate sprinkles, and filled with chocolate custard; pizzas with tearaway crusts that contain three cheeses and are topped by cornflakes sprinkled with more cheese; fried noodles, fried rice, fried anything-that-stands-still-long-enough; and deliciously golden fried chicken, as far as the eye can see.

It’s okay from time to time. But it’s a complete overload on a daily basis. And, fellow Malaysians, it’s killing you. Somehow, that plate of mutton rendang (coconut milk, sugar) doesn’t look quite so attractive any more.

ADDITIONAL: In concentrating on the fat, I completely forgot the diabetes risk from the sugar. The average Malaysian consumes one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of sugar a week! Add that to the fat intake, and I’m surprised there are even people still alive in the country. All it shows me is that the human body is a wonderful mechanism that can truly take a bucketful of punishment under the cover of pleasure.

More thoughts on RWA and Harlequin Horizons

Thanks to Victoria Strauss

Now that I’ve had another day to think on the RWA / Harlequin Horizons thing, I have a chance to be more sceptical … about RWA.

You see, RWA has been playing it one way (sloooooow, prevaricating, mealy-mouthed) for so long, it was a real shock to see them come out and actually be responsive for a change. There have also been numerous, long-running, clear-as-mud controversies over RWA’s stance on electronic presses, erotic romance writers, and writers of GLBT romance. So what’s different this time? How come they’ve come out with such a quick, unequivocal response? To be honest, I was expecting something along the lines of: “RWA is aware of Harlequin Horizons, a new publishing venture from Harlequin Enterprises. At this time, the Board will be convening and discussing what this means to the general membership. We will be posting a response within thirty days.” You know, the usual.

But nope, what you get is a smackdown within twenty-four hours (give or take) of the Harlequin Horizons press release announcing their launch. Strange, much?

Victoria Strauss also brings up this topic, so an entwined thought on this has occurred to others as well. Why no smackdown for Thomas Nelson (owns Westbow) or Random House (49% owns Xlibris) authors? Why the frighteningly quick response on Harlequin instead?

As I said on Strauss’ post, I think it’s a dummy spit. I think it’s a clique of influential Harlequin authors getting hurt and huffy over the announcement. First, the anger — “How DARE they?”. Followed by the retribution — “We’ll show them!”.

I didn’t put this on Victoria’s blog, because I didn’t think I had the time, but now that I decided to blow this up into a post here, let’s go have a look at the current RWA board, shall we?

  • Michelle Monkou, President. Oh look, a current Harlequin author.
  • Dorien Kelly, President-Elect. Yep, Harlequin makes an appearance.
  • Lorraine Heath. She mentions Avon Books and Harper Teen. I had a quick look at her website…no mention of Harlequin.
  • Stephanie Feagan. RomanceWiki tells me she writes for Silhouette (owned by Harlequin).
  • Terri Brisbin. Harlequin.
  • Jeanne Pickering Adams. Zebra.
  • Ruth Kaufman. Look, I don’t want to go offending Ms Kaufman, but I couldn’t find any obviously published books, either on her website or at Amazon. I think she’s still working her way to publication.
  • Cindy Kirk. Silhouette/Harlequin.
  • Trish Milburn. Harlequin.
  • Sara Reinke. Zebra.
  • Terri Reed. Steeple Hill (Harlequin with prayers).
  • Maggi Landry. She entered the 2009 Molly for unpublished writers, so I’m assuming she’s unpublished.
  • Sharon Kay Sala. Aka Dinah McCall. Harper…I think.
  • Vicki Lewis Thompson. Harlequin, more than 100 times!
  • Sylvia Day. Kensington and Tor.
  • Julie Hurwitz. Unpublished, from the sounds of things.
  • Sharon Sobel. Signet/NAL.
  • Terry McLaughlin. Harlequin.
  • Cynthia D’Alba. Not PAN yet.

So, out of the fifteen published authors, nine of them have some history with Harlequin, including the President and President-elect. Is it any wonder, then, that a cutting riposte to Harlequin’s latest bottom-line venture was quick to emerge off the presses?

Actually, I think this is a bone-headed move on RWA’s part, and its uncharacteristic speed signals — to me — more of a knee-jerk reaction than a measured response from a so-called professional organisation. Yes yes, I know, you’ll tell me that I’m unhappy with RWA no matter which way they jump, but I was expecting at least some deliberation to take place, preferably over the space of a week, having had quiet and extensive discussions with Harlequin themselves. Isn’t that how professionals are supposed to conduct themselves?

As is usual with RWA, I think there’s going to come a time when they have to back-track on this particular decision, just because (a) it impacts so many of their core membership, and (b) the RWA isn’t as important as they think they are. And their current stance will end up looking impulsive and a little tawdry — exactly what it actually is — as a result.

Look, I can get the exclusion of Harlequin Horizons from any RWA recognition. That’s fair. But excluding all the other Harlequin imprints as well? Consider this.

RWA considers e-presses to be equivalent to vanity publishing. (Just ignore the overwrought language of the article.) Harlequin launches wholly-owned e-press (Carina Press), which — remember — RWA considers to be equivalent to a vanity press. Nothing happens to other HQN imprints.

Harlequin launches wholly-owned vanity print/e-press (Harlequin Horizons). Hell breaks loose, demons emerge from the earth’s cracked mantle, and every current HQN author gets bitch-slapped.

What’s the difference, from an RWA perspective? No, seriously, What? Is? The? Difference? If the other HQN imprints weren’t debarred when Carina was launched (and we all know how sub-standard those epub authors are, right?), why make such a speedy song and dance when Horizons is? It doesn’t make any sense. Unless there’s a personal angle involved. Like the word “Harlequin” appearing. And the word “print”. Ah, suddenly, RWA starts to behave as it has always behaved and the universal equilibrium has reasserted itself.

No, stalwart readers, keep your kudos for RWA to yourselves for the time being. Something is definitely whiffy in the state of RWA at the moment, and I’m not buying into this whole RWA-as-a-principled-body stance. To me, the RWA currently resembles a spoilt child. But, then again, I’m just an epub author, so what do I know?

THIS JUST TO HAND: Victoria Strauss has another post up, with the reaction to Horizons from the Mystery Writers of America. They say:

On November 9, Mystery Writers of America sent a letter to Harlequin about the “eHarlequin Manuscript Critique Service,” notifying Harlequin that it is in violation of our rules and suggesting steps that Harlequin could take to remain on our Approved Publishers list. The steps outlined at that time included removing mention of this for-pay service entirely from its manuscript submission guidelines, clearly identifying any mention of this program as paid advertisement, and, adding prominent disclaimers that this venture was totally unaffiliated with the editorial side of Harlequin, and that paying for this service is not a factor in the consideration of manuscripts. Since that letter went out, Harlequin has launched “Harlequin Horizons,” a self-publishing program.

MWA’s November 9 letter asks that Harlequin respond to our concerns and recommendations by December 15. We look forward to receiving their response and working with them to protect the interests of aspiring writers.

Now you see, that’s how I expect a professional organisation to behave — concerns outlined clearly, possible steps to mitigate impact, mention of a dialogue between the two bodies, and enough time for some meaningful interim discussions to take place. Not the huffy “all of you must die! now!” rhetoric from the RWA. The difference in approach is stark.

Indymedia, Harlequin, RWA … oh my!

Are we there yet?

I think it was Maria who pointed out that you appear on search results based, mostly, on your blog headlines. And it occurs to me that I’ve been a bit, ah, obtuse in my headings. So, in order to get more hits to my poor little blog — and, by corollary, to my website, and thence to leviathan sales, natch! — I’ve succumbed to the “bleedin’ obvious headline” picker.

So, first off the block, Indymedia. As leftist as I am, this is the first time I’ve heard of Indymedia, which just goes to show that I’m obviously not as committed as I should be. Anyways, Indymedia received a subpoena from the US Justice Department asking for details of all site visitors on a particular date. While the story may head up with “IP addresses”, as you read the article, it actually gets worse:

The subpoena … from U.S. Attorney Tim Morrison in Indianapolis demanded “all IP traffic to and from www.indymedia.us” on June 25, 2008. It instructed Clair to “include IP addresses, times, and any other identifying information,” including [are you holding onto your hats? –ksa] e-mail addresses, physical addresses, registered accounts, and Indymedia readers’ [here we go! –ksa] Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, credit card numbers, and so on.

Whoo-hoo. Party on, Justice dudes! But, seriously, what is the matter with you, United States? I thought you already had this information on me! Even though I live outside the USA, I honestly thought you already had my daily visits to US-hosted sites sitting on some server deep in the bowels of the planet somewhere, along with any comments I’ve made to any website (cross-referenced), how long I spend at each site, whether I contribute financially to any site (and in what amounts) and who exactly I have on feed. To now find out that the Justice Dept. had to subpoena this kind of information from a website is kinda disappointing to the gleeful leftist nut-case conspiracy buff in me. Or maybe it’s Homeland Security that already has that intel and they won’t share. Aaaah, that makes me feel better.

And speaking of feeling better …. Look, you’ll get no balanced, “oh poor babies” rhetoric from me on the next issue. I speak as a bitter epubbed RWA member here. Timeline! Can we get a timeline over here please?

17-NOV :: Harlequin announces vanity press venture, Harlequin Horizons. Unlike Carina Press, that has a different name, the very inclusion of the word “Harlequin” in the newly-launched self-pub biz is enough to drive a fair percentage of Harlequin authors to swoon like it’s cover art of the 1950s. You can go to Dear Author for various takes on this.

19-NOV :: In a rare instance of responding in a timely fashion, RWA (Romance Writers of America) throws down the gauntlet:

With the launch of Harlequin Horizons, Harlequin Enterprises no longer meets the requirements to be eligible for RWA-provided conference resources. This does not mean that Harlequin Enterprises cannot attend the conference. Like all non-eligible publishers, they are welcome to attend. However, as a non-eligible publisher, they would fund their own conference fees and they would not be provided with conference resources by RWA to publicize or promote the company or its imprints.

Fisticuffs at dawn! Especially amongst epub writers, the relevance of the RWA has been questioned in recent times and now we can grab the popcorn and settle down to see who will win! It’s like an unrigged wrestling match … you don’t really care who triumphs as long as there’s plenty showing!

Of course, the biggest upshot of this — that someone (I forget who) was quick to point out — was that, with Harlequin officially struck off The Hallowed List of eligible publishers for the time being, this means that NO! Harlequin author — from any of the imprints, Modern to MIRA — can enter their book in the RITA competition (RWA’s Romance Novel of the Year, essentially). Oh ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Yes, all that bile from a bitter epub author — that I thought long since excreted, or whatever it is that happens to bile — magically appears and rises in my throat, causing me to laugh my socks off. (Don’t try to analyse that sentence, just go with the flow.) Oh, this piece of news just gets better and better.

(Harlequin is a very smart business. But its treatment of non-Anglo cultures in its staple romances make me want to upchuck. RWA pushes hard for the ongoing professional recognition of romance. But its short-sighted views on both romance (no icky GLBT or eroticism here!) and technology make me want to upchuck too. )

There has been a lot written about the serious implications of all these duelling press releases but, for myself, I’m just going to sit back and have some fun and suggest you do the same.

Once more, an automaton

Oh good grief, will the world not stop sending incendiary missiles of bogus thinking my way? To whit, an article in the Brisbane Times, entitled “Money can buy you love, economist says“. Dr Paul Fritjers has figured out what different events mean to men and women, translated into cold, hard cash. Herewith:

WHAT’S a marriage worth? To an Aussie male, about $32,000. That’s the lump sum … the man would need to receive out of the blue to make him as happy as his marriage will over his lifetime. An Aussie woman would need much less, about $16,000.

Hmm, I thought. So, according to him, marriage makes men twice as happy as women. Interesting. Moving on:

[W]hen it comes to divorce, the Aussie male will be so devastated it would be as if he had lost $110,000. An Aussie woman would be less traumatised, feeling as if she had lost only $9000.

Men are twelve times unhappier during a divorce? O-kay. I keep reading and decide to tabulate everything to make it easier (but feel free to go check the original article, to make sure I transcribed everything correctly):

Event Women Men x difference
Marriage +$16,000 +$32,000 x 2
Divorce -$9,000 -$110,000 x 12.2
Birth of a child +$8,700 +$32,700 x3.8
Death of spouse/child -$130,900 -$627,300 x 4.8
Moving house +$2,600 -$16,000 x 7.7

Asked why his calculations show men much more affected by life’s events than women, Professor Frijters says he doesn’t know. ”But it does tend to give me confidence in the calculations. We know, for instance, that marriage improves the lives of men much more than women.”

Yes, let’s jump from one independent conclusion and use that as the premise for validating an entire, completely different data set. Oh. My. Frickin’. Gods. I thought we had moved beyond this utter bullshit since Sigmund “Scientific method? What’s scientific method?” Freud.

Remember women, only men can feel with full emotional charge. It doesn’t matter that you’ve carried life within your body, losing it still doesn’t match a man’s pain. Not by 4.8 times.

I’m starting to get just a teensy sick of all this tripe that posits women as Other, as alien. Remember the “women have no emotional feelings during orgasm” “finding” in May of last year? The one that was couched with so many “maybe”s, “perhaps”s and “probably”s that the actual result ceased to have any objective meaning? Now we have this complete and utter claptrap. All of Frijtes’ research depends on a 10-point scale questionnaire (not renowned as the feedback mechanism of profundity) given to 10,000 Australians since 2001. And he’s managed to translate that shallow scale into actual money amounts.

Let’s count the ways where he could be barking up the wrong tree.

One, people always feel the need to please the authority figure and, culturally, this is drummed into women more than it is into men. So, given a questionnaire, the chances are that the women are going to answer in a way that’s less independent than the men, who have always been culturally conditioned to be mavericks.

Two, we don’t know what was said to the participants before they took the questionnaire. Were there verbal and non-verbal changes in the way the spiel was delivered to men and women?

Three, women have a tendency to be labelled “emotional” or “hysterical”. Were the results an indication of women actively trying not to appear emotional?

Four, what kind of language was used on the questionnaire? Was it gender-neutral?

Five, could this even be a reflection on reflection? Men tend to take things personally and feel they have to “resolve” the issue (the dominant’s usual role in society) whereas women feel they have to cope and move on (the submissive’s usual role in society)?

And that’s without even looking into the dubious proposition that the complexities of a life-changing event can be adequately captured in a 10-point frickin’ questionnaire!

When I mentioned this to J over the breakfast table, he looked at me and asked: “What’s the guy’s bias? I bet he’s divorced.”

He’s right on the first part. Every scientist approaches her/his pet hypothesis with an agenda. What’s Fritjers’ agenda? Is he divorced? Was it amicable? Has any traumatic event occurred in his life that has led to an even unconscious resentment towards women? There must be something, because anybody looking at the figures in the table, even men, would find it mighty strange that a man would feel the loss of a child more keenly than the woman who bore it. By almost four times. And Fritjers’ blithe explanation-that-isn’t for the large discrepancy is just more grist for that hidden agenda wheel.

There’s a very sour taste in my mouth right now left by Fritjers’ irresponsibility, and I hope it doesn’t take any methodical peer much time to completely demolish his theory. In the meantime, however, we have:

Insurance companies and lawyers … [taking] … a keen interest in the research, he says, because of the need for dollar compensation.

And I’m off again! So, if a man loses his spouse, there’s the potential for him to be compensated almost five times more than if it’s a woman who’s lost hers? In what universe, except our own, does this make any kind of sense?

Even worse than the blatant statement that men are worthy of more concern — the inference being that they feel more “deeply”, that they’re more “human”, whereas we’re somehow “lesser” — is the economic consequence of such lies. Any insurance company that aligns itself even faintly with Fritjers’ disturbing views, will find more than enough justification to cheat women (already the disadvantaged majority) out of bona fide compensation for serious life calamities. What’s next? Are we going to regress to the time when we thought women couldn’t feel pain like men?

Actually, that’s already happening, isn’t it? I gave birth to The Wast in California, and could not believe the “natural birth” bullshit that surrounded the process. I even had one friend go for counselling after birth because she had to have a forceps birth and felt that, as a result, she had “failed” to be a “real mother”. I had two emergency Caesarians for both of mine, and neither were pleasant experiences, but did that make me feel any less a woman? Absolutely not! My children were born healthy and alive and that was all I asked for. The real job of being a mother only began after that, not during an entirely biological process that has its own inherent risks that modern medicine can now mitigate against.

When a woman insists on sucking on ice chips (I mean to say!) rather than getting pain relief, there’s only one sector that wins, and that’s the HMO. Through a lengthy process of indoctrination, medical insurance companies in the United States have convinced women that *any* kind of intervention during the birth process is a reflection on their worth as women and mothers, and they’ve done this for the sole reason of increasing their profits. If I had any spare time, I’d really like to see the figures of female mortality during birth in an HMO environment, versus corresponding mortality in a country that has an affordable, public option. I’d also like to see the figures in the above two scenarios when comparing avoidable complications on the babies that have been delivered vaginally.

And now Fritjers strolls along with his loaded study. Where do I start?

Or, more to the point, where does it end?

Frozen leg of mutton: The City & The City

Guest post by Mr KS Augustin, in which another reader in the house puts forth his take on the novel in question.

This mysterious ingredient (the frozen leg of mutton in the title*) appears in quite a few examples of the “How not to write a novel” by Sandra Newman & Howard Mittelmark, my recent big favorite for reading on public transport. I would not presume to advise China Miéville (CM from now on) on how to write, or re-write, his The City & the City. This would be pretty arrogant of me, specially considering that I’m not a writer and do not aspire to become one. I do, however, admit surprise by CM’s opening references and credits to Franz Kafka’s and Bruno Schultz’s writing.

Subsequent to her finishing it, Kaz left the book on her desk to share, mentioning the supposed book’s style and atmosphere. I picked it up and began reading.

So, if you ever took the walk with Bruno Schulz down the street of his Cinnamon Shops, it may bring back childhood memories of the first time you were sent to do grocery shopping by your grandma, the first time when you were on an important mission of buying a bag of sugar, loaf of bread and perhaps a slab of butter. The shop was always small, which could be classified in Western terms as a deli-store. Perhaps, in these modern times, an Indian spice market could do the same trick of immersing yourself in a strange place where time slows down and you’re being surrounded by aromas of food and spices, and worn down counters. This was where old people slowly entered the scene, checking on the quality of cheese, pâté, or just making sure that they are buying the right stuff when carefully counting small change. To me it’s a feeling, and a smell, of a holiday. There’s nothing much to do and lots of time to reflect upon life in its details.

Moving to the next reference, if we try to enter Kafka’s world, then it probably would need to be done during a sleepless night, and lived through a nightmare of uncertainty of what is going to happen to us the next day. There is the possibility of failing or being afraid of failing in trivial things. Will my application for something really important pass or fail? What if there is a change in management or, better yet, we have to face some capricious persona who has absolute power over our future. If you want to have Kafka in a pill, take a trip through the Singapore-Johor Causeway and smile at the grumpy Singaporean immigration officers. You will know that they will stop you only if they could find a reason, just to show you who is in charge of that particular minute of your life. Well, Kafka takes it further, thus creating chilly feelings of impending, irreparable loss. Who knows, maybe that’s why not that many people like reading his novels, especially knowing that a lot of his fears turned into reality during WW2.

But guess what? There are no spice-markets in The City & The City, no absurd fear injected into our own reality, just clean CSI-in-a-book. Borrowing lettering from Slavic languages might have some small potential of creating any type of strangeness, but it does not invoke any images and, to a Polish-born person, might be actually quite funny at the beginning, then annoying, then tiresome.

I have to confess that I have not finished reading the novel. I was not even interested in the canonical question of who did it. The “why” became to me even less important. I was left pondering upon one question though: how far have we fallen as ethical beings if we derive pleasure and entertainment from an act of a murder? Is it really necessary to have a character killed in the novel so we can enjoy or appreciate the story? I do not really recall anybody being murdered along the streets with cinnamon shops. Then again I may need to get back to the B. Schulz stories to be sure.

So, where was this frozen leg of mutton being cooked, I wonder.

ADDITIONAL: I told J that people like to read ratings. Why, he asked? Because they do, I replied; they like a little sound-bite to take away. In all honesty, the discussion made me realise just how Americanised my thinking has become, but that’s a dirge for another day. In the end, because he didn’t finish the book, he was happy to let me tag a “DNF” to this post. Sorry, China Miéville but, as far as my husband is concerned, you’re going to have to do a lot better, especially when making specific literary references (all emphases mine):

Among the countless writers to whom I’m indebted, those I’m particularly aware of an grateful to with regard to this book include Raymond Chandler, Franz Kafka, Alred Kubin, Jan Morris, and Bruno Schulz.

at the beginning of your book. ;)

* For those who haven’t read the wonderful and highly-recommended book by Newman & Mittelmark (I’d put a link to The Book Depository here, but they’re down for maintenance at the moment), the frozen leg of mutton is a metaphor for something that’s mentioned in a novel but turns out to be completely irrelevant.

Impressions: The City and The City

I was delighted to purchase a signed hardcopy edition of China Miéville’s “The City and The City” from Shawn Speakman’s The Signed Page. (Free plug: if you’re after autographed copies of sf&f books, you could do worse than hop along to Shawn’s site. Miéville’s book made it, without a hitch and with perfect packing, to Malaysia! Thanks Shawn!)

UK cover of The City & The City

I’ll be honest. The reason I first got into Miéville was because he’s an avowed socialist and we members of an endangered species have to stick together. So, The City and The City (hereafter, TC&TC). What’s it about? The inner flap says:

When a murdered woman is found in the city of Beszel [can’t find a way to do a “z” with an acute accent … sorry — ksa], somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he investigates, the evidence points to conspiracies far stranger and more deadly than anything he could have imagined.

Okay! Science fiction, crime, and conspiracy theories, all rolled into one. Oh frabjous day! Kaz is delighted, and opens the book with unbridled enthusiasm.

The “gimmick” of TC&TC is that the city of Beszel is interwined with the city of Ul Qoma, and the citizens of both cities have to train themselves to “see” what is happening in their own city, and “unsee” what is happening in the other city, even though there are patches of intense “crosshatching”, where the boundaries between the cities shift from one to the other quickly, even from one house to another, and it takes a deep, visceral understanding not to step across from your own familiar territory into the Other. For those that ignore the rules, and acknowledge in some way the Other, without adhering to the proper protocols (a situation known as Breach), punishment is swift and unremitting via a corps of shadowy figures, also called Breach, that shift in and out of each city, spiriting the trespasser away for immediate retribution.

The novel is told in first person by Tyador and there is a definite European twist to the way the English language is used, a certain economy that’s descriptive and refreshing:

I got off by the statue of King Val. Downtown was busy: I stop-started, excusing myself to citizens and local tourists, unseeing others with care, till I reached the blocky concrete of ECS Centre. Two groups of tourists were being shepherded by Besz guides. I stood on the steps and looked down UropaStrasz. It took me several tries to get a signal. (p 14)

I know I’m generalising wildly here but an American writer would probably emphasise the groups of tourists whereas, with Miéville, you’re caught by the frustration of not getting a clear phone signal instead. It’s these little mundane and completely relatable deviations that make the book such a pleasure to read. Ever since Böll, I miss reading such wry sparseness in a novel.

The rest of the novel charts Borlú’s pursuit of the murder of a woman who was killed in one city and dumped in another. But, even with the intricacies of co-habitating cities, it isn’t as easy as that. There are repeated allusions to Orciny, a city that’s believed to exist between Beszel and Ul Qoma … a city of fable. Or is it?

First, what I liked about the novel. The first-person take. I like the unreliable narrator angle. It makes me work, wondering if Borlú is correct in his suppositions, or not. I liked the use of language and the way Miéville jams two words together to give an indication of tempo (like “stop-started” above). I liked the fact that the two cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, were totally different and yet had existed side-by-side for decades. I liked the fact that the novel wasn’t based in the United States. In general, I liked the novel.

Now, onto the tougher bit, which is what I didn’t much care for.

Tyador Borlú. A very likeable protagonist, yet so divorced from his own reality right from the start. There was nothing anchoring Borlú to his home city of Beszel and I thought that made the ending less poignant than it could’ve been. He was already a rootless piece of flotsam, tugged this way and that by forces that — for most of the novel — were beyond him. When all is revealed, it’s a bit ho-hum.

The last fifth of the novel. This ties in with the above point. I found the last twenty percent of the novel to be too predictable, sacrificing — I thought — the speculative side of the theme for something that, more and more, resembled a Hollywood action-film climax. If I had managed to read so far into the novel, chances were I was enjoying it thoroughly. To have the tone change to something more mundane was … disappointing. And smacked of pandering.

The next point could well be my own private bugbear, and I’ll cop to that charge, however…. If your novel is compared to Kafka and Dick, then I’m expecting something that will shake the foundations of the structure that the writer has put together. Throw in the surreal reality of Beszel and Ul Qoma, and I’m expecting something momentous — a towering denouement, a scathing indictment, a vitriolic unmasking. Instead, I get … Establishment. The novel begins and ends with nothing resolved, much the same way as a mix of oil and water may produce some entertaining turbulence for a few minutes before settling back into predictable equilibrium. What has been achieved? Essentially nothing beyond some interesting, and temporary, distraction.

And, lastly, I thought TC&TC lacked atmosphere. From living in many different places, can I tell you that they all smell different? Australia smells different to the United States, which smells different to South-East Asia, which smells different to Ireland. Each place has its own unique combination of colours, scents and impressions that form the whole. Miéville touches on the colours and architecture, but I felt he could have done a lot, lot more with the layers of difference between the two cities. What happens when a sizzling kebab at an outdoor stall in Ul Qoma sends exotic spice-laden aromas across to the more utilitarian Beszel side? One can unsee, but can one unsmell? Totally unhear that which evokes a visceral response? There are so many layers to different cities and I thought that Miéville only hit a couple of them, while ignoring others that would have made his prose a lot richer, and the differences between the two cities more stark and compelling.

And he poses certain questions, but leaves them unanswered. The true nature of Breach. The rationale behind the splitting of the cities in the first place. Some sense of the historic chaos that must have occurred when the cities were split asunder. These are little niggles, but niggles nonetheless.

So those are my impressions of TC&TC. Having said all that, China Miéville is definitely on my to-buy list. I still have three more novels of his that I’m itching to get to, but will have to wait until I’ve discharged my current obligations. So, you may think that I’m flaying TC&TC, but that’s not true.

I give it 7.5 out of 10.

POSTSCRIPT: For a different reader’s impressions, stay tuned for J’s take on the novel on Monday.

ADDITIONAL: And I’m blogging @ Novel Spaces. Why not drop by and say hi?

Sausage: A day in the life

I know I should be posting photos but that requires an investment of time that I really don’t have right now. Srsly. So I’m afraid you’ll just have to satisfy yourself with the following until Kaz has some few nanoseconds spare. Sorry.

Midnight to 5:20am :: Sleep, but also wake up and whine if (a) I need to go potty, (b) I need a hug, (c) I need a hug while I go potty. Go back to sleep while tata swears and curses and wipes down pyjama pants and/or floor. Dream of chewing doggy bones.

5:20am :: Mama‘s awake! She’s letting me out! Jump on mama! Jump on mama! Jump on mama! Let’s go into your office. Ooo, the fish are still asleep. Jump on mama! Jump on mama! Tata takes me out for my first potty trip of the day. Get back to mama. Jump on mama! Jump on mama!

6:00am :: What’s that I hear? Tata is downstairs, making breakfast? Mayhap he may drop a juicy crust of bread if I look pathetic enough. Time to go down, sit on his feet and get breakfast snacks.

6:20am :: I would’ve preferred a piece of bread with jam on it, but bread’s bread. Back to mama‘s office. Let mama know I’m back by jumping on her.

6:30am :: Follow mama downstairs. I show my love by stepping on her toes and nipping at them while she’s walking down the stairs.

6:30am to 7:00am :: Try to scavenge food from the other two pups at the table. Why are they sitting at the table but I’m not? Jump on mama! Jump on mama!

7:00am :: Step outside with tata. It’s still dark. I have to go potty again. Pups disappear into a big yellow box on wheels filled with other sleepy pups.

7:15am :: Back into the house. Up I shoot to mama‘s office. She’s still there! Jump on mama! Jump on mama!

7:15am to 2:30pm :: Follow mama everywhere. When she’s in her office, go to sleep on the mat under the desk. When she’s in tata‘s office, chase out the cats. Have food. Go potty. Sleep. Try to steal some fish food from the big fish in the pond outside. Wonder what they taste like? Go potty. Try to get the cats to play with me, but they only hiss and swat me with their claws. Spoilsports. I’ll keep trying though; I know I’d love playing chase with the cats. Bark at sounds heard by nobody else, just to show that I’m a good doggie. Get snacks. Sleep.

2:30pm to 7:00pm :: Other pups are home! Time to play! Time to bite bigger pup’s trousers. He likes that! Time to lick smaller pup’s hand. She likes that. Although she strangles me sometimes with how she holds me, I know she loves me. Run under their bed! Run around their bedroom! Run under their bed! Run around their bedroom! Repeat until I hear sounds from the kitchen below. Food! Jump on mama! Jump on mama! If cats are around, chase them through the house. Get fed. Potty and a long walk or play time in the garden. Jump on mama! Jump on pups!

7:00pm :: Still full of energy. Jump on pups! Jump on mama! Bite pups’ clothing! Try to lick mama! Jump on mama! Jump on pups! Get time-out. It happens every evening, wish I knew why. Lie outside TV room door.

8:00pm to 9:00pm :: Let inside the TV room! Hurray! Quiet now. Sneak up to mama, lie in her lap. Fidget. Snuffle. Lick. Nap.

9:00pm :: Go outside for last potty of the evening. Lie on grass instead and look pathetic. Try to do slalom around the palm trees. Lie on grass. Try to eat snails. Jump on mama! Jump on mama! Oh yeah, and potty, I suppose.

9:30pm to midnight :: Tata positions my kennel so I can see into mama‘s bedroom. Puts me in kennel and locks the door. I sigh and settle in for a sleep. Dream of chasing cats, putting tata in the kennel and snuffling up to mama myself on that large, comfy bed. * sigh * Sleep.

And that’s roughly what you get when you own a bull terrier pup.